‘Sherpa’ explores the other side of Everest at Aspen Filmfest
If You Go …
What: ‘Sherpa’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Sunday, Sept. 27, noon
How much: $15 GA; $12 Aspen Film members
After a 2013 brawl on Mount Everest brought worldwide media attention to the simmering conflict between Western climbers and the Sherpas who guide them up the mountain, documentarian Jennifer Peedom knew there was a bigger story to be told.
She set out for Everest to make “Sherpa” in 2014, hoping to film the climbing season from the perspective of Sherpas and to highlight on-mountain inequality. But when an early-season avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, the urgency and tenor of the project quickly changed.
“I heard the avalanche from my tent, and at that point, one of the Sherpas came to me and said, ‘A bad accident has happened. You have to come,’” Peedom said.
She rallied her crew — none of the “Sherpa” team was harmed — and went to the scene.
“On the day itself, we didn’t know exactly what was going on,” she said.
They soon realized that it was the deadliest tragedy in history on the iconic peak. Peedom and her crew were witness to the aftermath as the Sherpa community reckoned with the avalanche, and eventually, they opted not to work the climbing season out of respect for the dead.
“There were many times where it was hard to film, but I knew we needed to film, and sometimes I knew we couldn’t,” she said. “It’s key to figure out what people’s boundaries are. We had Sherpas on our crew and a Sherpa translator, so it was about checking in with them to see what was appropriate.”
The fight and the avalanche galvanized Sherpas to stand up against inequity on Everest, where climbers might pay $75,000 to reach the summit but Sherpas — assuming the bulk of risk — make about $5,000.
“After the avalanche, it came rushing back into the foreground that the Sherpas did have the capacity to get angry and fight back,” Peedom said. “It feels there’s been a shift. There’s a sense that they’re entitled to emotions like anger and frustration. … Some make the mistake of calling it a political movement. I don’t think it is. It’s a natural path of self-determination.”
The number of outdoor-adventure documentaries has boomed in recent years. Five outdoor-film festivals will be staged this year in the Roaring Fork Valley alone. While the outdoor-film festival circuit has created a platform for such stories to be told, most of those movies — many of them excellent — stay in the adventure-film niche and don’t go into the mainstream.
“Sherpa” appears poised to be a rare crossover, coming out of the Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival with rave reviews and awards buzz. At Aspen Filmfest, “Sherpa” played in Carbondale on Friday and will screen Sunday in Aspen at Paepcke Auditorium.
“Quite how we broke out is an inexact science,” Peedom said. “It’s a combination of things. It’s having an eye for a story — I had an instinct that this was the right time to tell this story, highlighting the plight of the Sherpas. I never could have known it was quite so right.”
Its high production values, including camera work by high-altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk of “Meru” fame, have also helped separate it from the pack.
“It needed to look amazing to be mainstream,” Peedom said. “In order to do that, I chose very carefully the team — from the cinematographer to the composers to the editor.”
It’s also a different kind of Everest story. Climbing narratives often focus on a single heroic man battling nature. Peedom wanted to flip that formula around.
“The film shows how the Sherpas are doing most of the work, and that doesn’t get shown,” she said. “Sherpas are taking 90 percent of the risk and doing 90 percent of the work. That’s not to take any credit away from anyone who had climbed Everest, but that’s the truth.”
The film has been purchased by Universal for distribution in theaters, including a limited release in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Academy Awards, and the Discovery Channel has bought the international television rights.
A lot of people will get to see it, but an Aspen Filmfest audience will be among the first.
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